What can Philosophy of Religion Offer to the University?


Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org, we are asking philosophers of religion to tell us what philosophy of religion can offer to the modern university, considered either as a whole or through the lens of one or more university disciplines. Our blog is full of fascinating contributions of this kind.

Last year we witnessed a fabulous response to our challenge to look inwards and say what our field is and does, and we’ll soon present our analysis of those creative blog contributions. This year we are looking outwards as well as inwards, asking philosophers of religion to tell us how our field can impact the university or specific university disciplines.

For this theme, as for last year’s theme, we prefer to ask and listen rather than stipulate and define; it’s how we live up to our intention to speak for the entire unruly world of philosophy of religion. Ultimately we hope to analyze the themes in these blog entries and present our findings to you.

So read the blog entries and learn about philosophy of religion in the modern university from the experts who work in the field.

Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Leonard Angel on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Leonard Angel is Instructor Emeritus at Douglas College, Department of Philosophy and Humanities. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Physical Closure And Spirituality 

Everyone is interested in spirituality.

Ask a few questions and you’ll find that the majority of all philosophers accept physical closure or physical completeness (“or physical completeness” will be henceforth removed). The analytic philosophers are included in “all.” That means that physical closure must be consistent with, somehow conceived, spirituality. How would it be so conceived?

The non-breaking of physics’ formulas’ outcomes couldn’t be inconsistent with spirituality, supposedly, except for the view that physical closure implies physicalism, and physicalism is inconsistent with spirituality. Let’s look at that supposed exception.

Physicalism is a metaphysics, which seems to be inconsistent with spirituality. Spirituality seems to require a “realm of spirit.” Physicalism says that all is made out of physics’ particles. Physicalism seems to be inconsistent with a “realm of spirit,” which seems to require pure spirit.

In response, one could say that it is merely an impression that there is a requirement of pure spirit; suppose the spirit realm is compositional. Suppose the spirit realm is made up of material parts put together in a way that makes for a “realm of spirit.” “Compositionality” seems to be a technicality, undoing the supposed exception.

Physical closure means, the non-breaking of physics’ formulas’ outcomes. Therefore, physical closure should be consistent with spirituality. What follows says a lot: “somehow conceived” (in the second paragraph) is clear enough.

The consistency between physical closure, on the one side, and spirituality, on the other, is related to how people behave in the world. While recognizing that physical closure exists, people don’t go trumpeting the news to others. They’re quiet about it. They trust that physical closure obtains, and that others will accept it at their own pace. While recognizing that science is, shall we say, strong, they don’t go about trumpeting the news. They trust in the strength of science. They let others accept science’s strength, at their own pace.

Spirituality is not dependent on one particular religion’s doctrines. That’s why physical closure is important: it shows the religions to be in a group that has no use for science, which is okay. The main religions of the world are in a group in which one leads to another; and the other leads to still another, and so on. But, at some point, the first will be led back to. The main religions of the world are in a group in which each finds spirituality in its own way, and yet has doctrines that are suspicious.

Let’s go farther than that: each main religion of the world is heretical. This means each main religion of the world is, in its own terms, heretical. So it is that physical closure shows something significant: if the world is physically closed, so that mathematical physics is not broken by any event, natural (or supernatural), then spirituality, being compositional, is freely available, and can be found by anyone.

What philosophy of religion brings to universities is what the large majority of philosophical analysts already know, that physical closure, in the world, obtains. That leaves room for spirituality to be compositional and freely available. Anyone can find it. That allows members of the large majority of philosophical analysts to pursue spirituality. That’s something that everyone wants.

There was a lot about philosophers in the preceding material. But why focus on philosophy?

There are many reasons. Philosophy used to be the queen of the sciences. In the Middle Ages, there were public debates about religions, and philosophers played important roles. Once, until about 1960, there were world-famous philosophers. Now if one tries to think of one, one can do no better than Dan Dennett, a famous philosopher of mind, who happens to be a well-known secular humanist, too. In about twenty years, if the current pattern continues, there will be no world-famous philosophers, as Bertrand Russell or Jean-Paul Sartre were.

But philosophy can regain what it has lost.

Universal acceptance of physical closure would do it. Physical closure, as we’ve seen, implies physicalism. And physicalism makes the world’s basics physical particles. That’s how the current paradigm shifts: now, the world is philosophical, and (many don’t realize this) disputatious; but, in the future, the world will have become, in its basics, non-disputatious.

Sciences are important: scientists tend to be interviewed before philosophers. But sciences make the world, in its basics, less disputatious than it used to be. Physical closure or completeness relates the sciences to each other. The sciences have a hierarchy, and math-physics is at the bottom. No one knows what’s at the top.

Physics was mathematized some time in the 1600s, due to Galileo and Isaac Newton. Chemistry was physicalized by about 1930. Paul Dirac and Linus Pauling can be credited with this. Paul Dirac announced that nothing in chemistry broke what was a physical law, in 1929, and Linus Pauling, wrote a text about this in the early 1930s. Biology was physio-chemicalized by 1965, due to the discovery of the ordinary but complex chemistry underlying DNA, in 1953 by Francis Crick, and James Watson, and many other discoveries. And the human & social sciences – including history, political science, psychology, sociology, anthropology – were biologized.  But this is implicit, rather than explicit. It could be after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, but in the 1800s; it could be in the 1900s as Philip Lieberman thought, thinking about a seemingly different topic, human language acquisition; it could be in the 2000s, as Steven Pinker thought about human language acquisition; it could be in the future, having not happened yet. Whether it has happened or not depends on one’s views on human language acquisition, the apparently different topic.

Perhaps spirituality, too, will pick up something from the development of physical closure. This would be the close relationship of the sciences. Spirituality may become less disputatious than it has been. That, too, would be good.

Gregory Dawes on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

gregory dawesGregory Dawes is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at University of Otago in New Zealand. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What can philosophy of religion offer to the university? As it stands, I am sorry to say, not a great deal. But it could make an important contribution, if it were broadened and reshaped.

The problems facing the discipline have been highlighted by a number of recent scholars, including Wesley Wildman, Kevin Schilbrack, Timothy Knepper, and Nick Trakakis. Following in the footsteps of Schilbrack, I shall highlight two problems: its narrowness and its intellectualism.

1. Narrowness

The narrowness of the field is its most obvious characteristic. What is called philosophy of religion would more accurately be described as a philosophy of Christian theism. Both non-theistic conceptions of divinity and non-classical conceptions of God receive short shrift.

Take, for instance, the alternative conceptions of divinity found within the world’s religions. I know of only one textbook (Keith Yandell’s) that takes seriously what it calls “non-monotheistic conceptions of ultimate reality.” Even then, its discussion of alternatives is limited to the conceptions of Brahman found in the Advaita traditions of Hinduism and the conceptions of the self and the world found within Buddhism. It fails to take seriously the many polytheistic or animistic traditions of the world, as well as religious practices such as the veneration of ancestors.

It may be that, philosophically speaking, there is little to be said in favour of animism, polytheism, or ancestor worship. But this needs to be demonstrated rather than merely assumed. In any case, there are surely philosophical arguments in favour of modern alternatives to traditional theism, such as the “process theology” of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. One such alternative, entitled “ultimism,” has been developed recently by John Schellenberg. Once again, however, Schellenberg’s work is an outlier in the field; alternatives to Christian theism are rarely treated as worthy of equal consideration.

Practitioners of the discipline often argue that their focus is not merely Christian theism but what they call “classical theism.” This is, they argue, a rational reconstruction of the central beliefs of three religious traditions, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In practice, however, few philosophers express any interest in religions other than Christianity. They may make the occasional reference to Maimonides or Avicenna, but the scope of their inquiry rarely strays beyond Christian thought.

2. Intellectualism

A second problem highlighted by Schilbrack’s work is that the philosophy of religion is “intellectualist,” unjustifiably concerned with the doctrinal dimension of religion. Religions, of course, have many dimensions. Ninian Smart famously identified six more: the mythic or narrative, the experiential or emotional, the ethical or legal, the ritual, the social, and the material. Each of these raises questions of interest to philosophers.

A focus on the doctrinal dimension of religion gives rise to a number of problems. The first has to do with whose doctrines are studied. In focusing on “classical theism,” philosophers limit themselves, in effect, to the professed beliefs of a certain educated (Christian) élite. So not only is the philosophy of religion narrowly focused on classical theism, but it neglects many of the beliefs that devotees have actually held. Philosophers assume, for instance, that God is thought to be “without a body.” But Mormons, for example, disagree. They are by no means alone in the history of religions. Epicureans held a similar view.

By focusing on professed beliefs, philosophers also neglect those doctrines that are embedded in narratives, enacted in laws, and performed in ritual and song. Many forms of religion, as R. R. Marett remarked, are “not so much thought out as danced out.” But one would never know this from reading philosophy of religion texts. The Eastern Orthodox liturgy, for instance, is richly expressive of beliefs about human beings and their relation to the divine, expressed not just in words but in ritual and architecture. Which philosophers are studying those doctrines?

The philosophy of religion is intellectualist in another sense, in that its focus has been on the arguments that can be produced for or against classical theism. But in making this its focus, it tacitly assumes what many religious thinkers deny. It assumes that philosophical reason is an appropriate way to attain knowledge of the divine. Even philosophically minded believers recognize other sources of religious knowledge, such as divine revelation and mystical “knowledge by acquaintance.” But many religious thinkers simply deny that philosophical reason has any role in this domain. Martin Luther described philosophy as “the devil’s greatest whore.” Al-Ghazālī held that the truths vital for the religious life can be known only by revelation. Both Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja insisted that only the scriptures are a public, authoritative source of vidyā (saving knowledge). If the philosophy of religion is to be the philosophy of religion, it must take such views seriously.

3. A Solution

Given the narrowness and intellectualism of the field, it is far from clear that it should be called “the philosophy of religion” at all. Since it is focused almost exclusively on theistic arguments, and since these are produced largely by Christian apologists, it would be more accurately described as “the philosophy of Christian apologetics.”

It could, however, be broadened, to cover the beliefs of a variety of religious traditions and to embrace the other dimensions of religion. If it were broadened in this way, it could be a vibrant field of study, with real contributions to make to other university disciplines. Philosophers could join hands with those engaged in the exploration of Chinese, Hindu, and Buddhist philosophical texts, within religious studies or area studies programs. They could also contribute to the work of those trying to understand religion as a cultural phenomenon: anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and historians.

A declaration of interest. I have a short book in press entitled Religion, Philosophy, and Knowledge, which sets out a different way of practising the philosophy of religion. It is only one such alternative and there are surely many others. But I hope it demonstrates what our discipline could contribute, if it were suitably reformed.

Timothy Knepper on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Timothy KnepperTimothy Knepper is professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Drake University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Specifying what philosophy of religion has to offer to the modern university requires understanding what philosophy of religion is. For the purposes of this short essay, I take philosophy of religion to be the understanding and evaluation of religious reason-giving. The first part of this formula—understanding and evaluation—is shorthand for my fourfold method and goals for doing philosophy of religion: (1) thick description, yielding empathetic and contextual understanding; (2) formal comparison, producing important and interesting similarities and differences; (3) multi-disciplinary explanation, giving reasons for the similarities and differences produced by the comparison; (4) crucial evaluation, raising traditional philosophical questions about the meaning, value, and truth of the form of religious reason-giving in comparative perspective. The second part of my formula—religious reason-giving—embeds two chief assumptions: first, that philosophy of religion investigates actual instances of religious reason-giving, not ahistorical generalities; second, the philosophy of religion investigates religious reason-giving in all religious traditions and communities, or at least in a cultural and religious diversity of religious traditions and communities.

Not only does specifying what philosophy of religion has to offer to the modern university presuppose an understanding of philosophy of religion; it also presupposes an understanding of the modern university. For better or worse, I have taught at only one university, Drake University, a mid-sized, private university in the Midwest. My department is a joint philosophy and religion department, offering undergraduate degrees only in philosophy and religion. My understanding of the modern university is formed by my experiences at Drake, especially Drake’s mission, which is “to provide an exceptional learning environment that prepares students for meaningful personal lives, professional accomplishments, and responsible global citizenship.”

For me, philosophy of religion’s contribution to the third of these aspirations—responsible global citizenship—is most obvious. Philosophy of religion offers empathetic and contextual understanding of the reasons and ideas that a cultural-religious diversity of religious traditions and communities give and use to understand who they are and how to live their lives. Philosophy of religion, at least as I practice it, helps students come to see these reasons and ideas as constituting living worldviews that make claims about what is real, true, and good. Moreover, such a philosophy of religion wrestles with issues regarding how people of different religious realities, truths, and values coexist peacefully and respectfully in a “global world.” For all these reasons, philosophy of religion plays a unique and indispensable role in the modern university’s goal of educating responsible global citizens.

For many philosophers of religion, philosophy of religion’s most unique and indispensable contribution to the modern university, at least in terms of Drake’s mission, involves meaningful personal lives. Philosophy of religion’s contribution to this goal is indeed important; for it is in philosophy of religion classes that students reflect in rigorous and disciplined ways about questions regarding their own religious beliefs and practices, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, though, traditional philosophy of religion often remains aloof to the reasons that religious practitioners actually employ in their religious lives, preferring instead the reasons of the western philosophical canon. If philosophy of religion were to take these everyday, ordinary reasons more seriously, it could potentially have an even greater impact in cultivating meaningful personal lives in its students in the modern university.

Finally, there is professional accomplishments. Of course, philosophy of religion contributes to the professional accomplishments of students pursuing philosophy of religion. Less obviously, philosophy of religion contributes to the professional accomplishments in religious studies and philosophy, although there are scholars of religion and philosophers who would no doubt argue differently. In the former case, philosophy of religion contributes an awareness of the nature and function of reason giving in religion, which is not nearly as attenuated as some scholars of religion want to believe. Moreover, philosophy of religion, at least as I understand it, takes up critical questions of method and theory in religious studies. In the latter case of philosophy, a philosophy of religion that pays attention to the historical forms of religious reason-giving could have the same kind of ripple effect as Thomas Kuhn had outside the philosophy of science and Ludwig Wittgenstein had outside the philosophy of language. Regardless, given that religion is something humans do, much like science and art, philosophy of religion can contribute to the philosopher’s quest to understand reason-giving and rationality more generally. But philosophy of religion is of use in the professional accomplishments of far more than just scholars of religion and philosophers. In many cases these contributions are no different than those of religious studies and philosophy more generally—critical thinking and analysis for lawyers and natural scientists, global and multicultural understanding for educators and social scientists. But philosophy of religion has a distinct contribution to professions that are somehow involved in religious reason-giving—fields related to anthropology, sociology, political science, international relations, psychology, and so forth.

If I have one concern about these contributions, it is not that philosophy of religion is unable in principle to make them, but that philosophy of religion is unwilling in practice to do so—that philosophy of religion is understood and practiced in such a way that it only considers the rationality of ahistorical theism or postmodern philosophy. It is time that philosophy of religion be understood and practiced much more globally and historically than this.

Keith Parsons on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

Keith ParsonsKeith Parsons is professor of philosophy at University of Houston, Clear Lake. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What does the philosophy of religion offer to the modern university? The answer is “not much” or “a great deal,” depending upon what kinds of intellectual activities and inquiries are covered by the “philosophy of religion” rubric. For quite some time, academic philosophy of religion has largely comprised a program of theistic apologetic and anti-theistic critique. Theistic philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Robin Collins, and Edward Feser have offered defenses of the truth and/or rationality of theism. Non-theist philosophers such as Paul Draper, J.L. Schellenberg, Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, and Michael Martin have criticized those theistic arguments and proposed various atheological arguments, i.e. arguments against the truth and/or rationality of theism. These debates have been carried out at a highly sophisticated level, often employing such tools as modal logic and Bayesian confirmation theory, while being deeply informed by such fields as physical cosmology and theoretical physics.

And what has been the result of these learned discussions? I agree with John Hick’s assessment in An Interpretation of Religion. The result is stalemate. Hick argues, cogently in my view, that neither side has established its case with finality, and that the upshot appears to be that the universe admits of either a naturalistic or a religious interpretation. That is, neither side can show that the other is committed to claims that are absurd, irrational, or in any sense epistemically censurable. This does not imply a wishy-washy relativism or a feckless neutralism. On the contrary, one may still be a committed theist or atheist, convinced by the arguments for your side. However, one must admit that those arguments, however persuasive they seem to you, are neither apodictic nor irrefragable, and that the opposing view may be articulated in ways that are consistent, coherent, and compatible with the empirical evidence. In Hick’s terms, the universe is “religiously ambiguous;” it may reasonably be regarded as a causally-closed and explanatorily self-sufficient physical whole, or it may, equally reasonably, be taken as pointing to a transcendent aspect, a “Real” beyond or beneath the physical.

The upshot, as I see it, is that the ancient debate between theists and non-theists has pretty much played out, and is no longer deserving of the massive amount of intellectual effort, time, and energy that has been devoted to it for several centuries. The project of natural theology, or natural atheology, has now reached a point of exhaustion. Both sides have had a full and fair say, using arguments that are as sophisticated and articulate as we are likely to get. Enough. No doubt the question of the existence of the theistic God will continue to be hashed and re-hashed ad nauseam for the foreseeable future in one venue or another (largely online, I would think). However, it is now time for the philosophy of religion, as an academic discipline, to move on to other, perhaps more fruitful, lines of inquiry if it wishes to retain relevance and make a genuine intellectual contribution.

What, then, would a rejuvenated and progressive program in the philosophy of religion look like? First, it will have to be genuinely pluralistic. I am not here offering a sort of knee-jerk paean to multi-culturalism of the kind we often hear in academic contexts. It is simply the case that there are many deep issues in such traditions as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and other non-Judeo-Christian contexts that could lend themselves to rigorous investigations using the potent tools and techniques of analytic philosophy. Such concepts as dharma, karma, and moksha would richly repay study and attempted elucidation by Western philosophers. Issues now regarded as largely internal to religions could be made topics of broader study. For instance, how, really, should we understand the relations between sharia law and the secular, liberal, and pluralistic aspirations of democratic societies? Philosophy could offer responsible analysis beyond the vacuous polemic and censure that now dominate such discussions. Is religious pluralism of the sort that Hick advocated a viable and reasonable program? Is any form of religious exclusivism or particularism still plausible, or are these merely expressions of religious imperialism or chauvinism?

What about the concept of secularism? Under the influence of Enlightenment values, liberals have long argued for secular societies, but are they really possible? Might not secularism itself be rife with myths, contradictions, and absurdities, as philosophers such as Charles Taylor have argued? Also, issues in the relationship between science and religion continue to arise. While historians of science have long since rejected the old “warfare” view that the relation between science and religion is a zero-sum game, it is not clear that there are no points of conflict. For instance, discoveries of neuroscience appear to flatly conflict with religious interpretations of human nature, meaning, and significance. Does neuroscience imply the radically deflationary view of humanity proposed, e.g., by Alex Rosenberg, or is Owen Flanagan right that much of traditional teaching can be retained, if only in modified form?

One issue of particular interest to me is whether it is now possible to have a rational paganism and what it would look like. Recent decades have seen a remarkable resurgence of pagan traditions and practice. Some of this is rather silly, an excrescence of shallow “New Age” pseudo-spirituality. On the other hand, in Reykjavik, Iceland, there is now a temple to the Norse gods, who are being worshipped again for the first time in a thousand years. Now, while I take it for granted that few now literally believe in hammer-wielding Thor smiting the giants or in one-eyed Odin riding his six-legged horse, pagan traditions encompassed profound concepts, often in nascent form. For instance, pagan traditions are at least implicitly pantheistic, and the prospects for genuinely pantheistic religiosity should be explored.

In short, when we conceive of getting past the hackneyed theist/atheist stalemate, many possibilities for new and exciting inquiry open up. If philosophy of religion can move into these much more spacious realms, it will have much in the way of intellectually exciting discussion to enrich the modern university.


Michael S. Jones on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

michael s jonesMichael S. Jones is Professor of Philosophy at Liberty University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university? If we understand the term “philosophy of religion” as broadly referring to the philosophical analysis of ideas (including evaluation of the coherence, plausibility, and truthfulness of such ideas as well as an investigation of their meaning) found in religious belief systems, then I think it is of great value to the modern university. Let me explain why.

The sine qua non of the modern university is objective, rational study. Whether this be the study of physics, chemistry, or another of the other natural sciences, of language, literature, or the arts, or of metaphysics, political theory, or any other philosophical subject, the modern university is committed to analyzing it, understanding it, and explaining it in a way that is as objective, systematic, and rational as possible. This is not to deny those inherently subjective elements of human cognition, which are important and significantly color our investigations. These, too, are a subject of study.
The range of topics studied and taught at a modern university often includes religion, though not all universities broach this important topic. Of the many that do, there are two main approaches. Universities that are affiliated with a specific religion often have programs of study focused on that religion. These programs may be oriented around training ministers in the doctrines and practices of that religion. Such training does not necessarily include critical analysis of the teachings of that or any other religion, although such critical reflection can be helpful, both to the student personally and as preparation for vocational ministry.

Universities that are not affiliated with any particular religion often have a department of religious studies. Such departments approach religion in an objective and academic fashion, describing beliefs and practices, studying the history of religions, and presenting statistics about numbers of adherents, centers of worship, and other quantifiable data. These departments are usually very broad, containing professors from many different religions and offering a very diverse array of courses. They are officially non-sectarian, though many of their professors will have a degree of allegiance to one religious tradition or another.

Because of the religious diversity of these departments, there is the potential for conflict on a number of fronts. Even scholars who are extremely amicable and harbor inclusivist or pluralist notions of religious truth can get embroiled in protracted – even heated – discussions of whose tradition is most correct, whose religion is more beneficent, whose interpretation of history is more accurate, whose arguments are more cogent, and so on. Hence such departments typically eschew such topics, cultivating a congenial and collegial atmosphere where each tradition is given space to present its own history and teachings without being subject to criticism.

While this path away from criticism has many advantages, it also has the not insignificant disadvantage of diminishing to a noteworthy degree the amount of rigorous analysis that is applied to the claims of the various religious traditions. This is where philosophy of religion steps in.

Philosophers specialize in the rigorous, logical analysis of ideas. Hence philosophers are in a good position to rigorously and logically analyze religious beliefs. Philosophy departments are not usually constructed along the lines of religious belief systems and hence are less in need of attenuating the potential for religious conflict than are religious studies departments. Nor are philosophy departments oriented around training ministers in a particular tradition, so they are less likely than theology departments or pastoral studies programs to be oriented around the promulgation or defense of some such tradition.

Hence the study of philosophy of religion offers this to the modern university: non-partisan, critical analysis of the ideas found in the world’s systems of religious belief. Inasmuch as such an investigation is necessary for the university to be comprehensive in its offerings, the study of philosophy of religion also offers to the modern university the possibility of drawing closer to a truly comprehensive program of studies.

J. R. Hustwit on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

J R HustwitJ. R. Hustwit is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Among other things, philosophy of religion offers a space for the truth claims of non-Christian religions to be taken seriously. This space may be plentiful at larger institutions in other parts of the world, but at my institution, which is small, religiously affiliated, and located in the theologically conservative American South, philosophy of religion is the refuge of trans-religious inquiry into non-Christian truth claims.

As an academic subject, religion has traditionally been approached through one of two models: religious studies or theology. What follows is an oversimplification of this debate in many contexts, but is appropriately simple at my institution and others like it. Here then, are the sides: religious studies is the approach heavily influenced by the social sciences, treating religions as social phenomena to be explained. The truth value of the religion’s claims and the salvific efficacy of the religion’s practices are off-limits, methodologically speaking, as those judgments rely on data that are unavailable. Theology on the other hand, is the “insider” approach, which asks questions of truths and salvations, and it is able to do so due to a foundational commitment to certain claims about scripture or religious reality. In short, religious studies has been a secular field, and theology has been a confessional—predominately Christian—field.

Two bits of epistemology will trouble this neat dichotomy. First, theology is not unique in that it presupposes certain commitments that shape its conclusions. Religious studies scholars, because they are human, also pre-commit to certain judgments—about the meaning of truth, the definition of religion, the scope of what may be considered evidence. Likewise, theologians have unexamined commitments that go beyond what their traditions demand. Second, the nature of evidence, which is used as a methodological wedge between religious studies and theology, is in dispute. For example, private mystical experience is not publicly observable, nor is it repeatable, but its limited disclosure does not entail that it cannot indicate truth. Likewise for scripture or the testimony of saints and sadhus. Such “soft evidence” may not indicate truth in the same way as observable and repeatable phenomena, but they still should play a role in the assessment of truth claims.

Despite the fuzziness that I see at the boundary of religious studies and theology, many universities are staffed with faculty who are allergic to fuzziness, which means that religious studies departments tend to not consider truth claims vis-à-vis actual truth, and theology departments tend to not venture far from their (largely Christian) commitments. As universities race to include “global” and “multicultural” elements to their curricula (a good thing!), they struggle with how and where to include this new material. Should our students learn about advaita vedanta from an anthropologist, critical theorist, or theologian? The obvious is answer is “Yes. All of the above!” The problem facing many smaller institutions, including my own, is that there simply isn’t enough talent on hand to staff courses that cover multiple methodologies. How then can a student engage non-Christian religious truth claims as a demand for credence, rather than as a museum piece to be explained? Philosophers are able to bridge the gap between religious studies and theology because like religious studies, they are generally not beholden to any religious orthodoxy, and like theology, they pursue truth in addition to explanation and understanding. When religious studies methodologically de-claims religions, and there aren’t any comparative theologians for 100 miles in any direction, PoR to the rescue!

PoR offers students an opportunity to take on the “big questions” that arise outside of Judeo-Christian traditions. Is our shared experience illusory? How is ego distinct from self? Does human striving interfere with the harmony of nature? Whereas these questions are observed in most world religions courses, philosophy of religions gives students explicit tools to adjudicate those claims. Of course, given the limits of a single course, student conclusions will hardly stand up to theological expertise. But that’s why philosophy is a good fit here, because it focuses on the process of truth-seeking, rather than the possessing of truth. A single course can only begin and steer a process of truth seeking, which is all philosophy should ever hope to do.

PoR can act as a surrogate for comparative theology in institutions that lack the resources or will to support comparative theology. But that isn’t quite fair. PoR is actually more than a surrogate, it is a different animal altogether. Unlike confessional theology, PoR is not obligated to cohere with any historical tradition (though one may argue that such coherence is truth indicative). Nor does PoR begin with any particular assumptions about the nature of reality (though every philosopher is always already constituted by some set of presuppositions ). In these respects, PoR may achieve a wider breadth of competing hypotheses than comparative theology, and in certain modes, is virtually indistinguishable from Jerry Martin’s notion of “transreligious theology” (See Open Theology, Vol. 2, No. 1 (April 2016)). The wider breadth of starting points and freedom to stray from orthodoxy could provide richer and more fruitful inquiry into the big questions. To philosophers of religion, this seems an obvious good, but to university administrators, it may be necessary to point out further benefit.

It seems to me that students who actually question the truth claims of the world’s religions (as opposed to merely contextualizing them), and grant them, at least initially, the status of being live options, have a leg up on their peers. They have practiced trying on perspectives other than their own, and more importantly, tried to reach carefully considered conclusions across the boundaries of different worldviews. These skills are increasingly demanded in nearly every occupation, and more importantly, are a necessary condition for reducing religious violence. These skills are not easy to assess, but they remain crucial all the same. For those reasons, I see the transreligious mode of PoR as an immense benefit to the university.

Trent Dougherty on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

trent doughertyTrent Dougherty (PhD Rochester) is Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department and a fellow of the Honors College at Baylor University. He publishes regularly in Epistemology, Philosophy of Religion, and Philosophy of Language.  He is the author of The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014).  He is the editor of Evidentialism and Its Discontents (OUP, 2011), the co-editor (with Justin McBrayer) of Skeptical Theism: New Essays (OUP, 2014), and author of numerous essays, reviews, and reference works in his areas including the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and Oxford Bibliographies. When not writing, he enjoys gravity sports, gardening, and gourmet cooking with his wife and four children. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I have been asked to address the question, “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”  Here is a somewhat belligerent answer: relevance.  I’ll explain that a bit shortly, but first a little more belligerence.  Who’s asking?  I mean, if the question is coming from an administrator at my home institution, which tries to cultivate a distinctive Christian identity, I’m going to give one answer: a unique ability to articulate the foundations of our mission as a Christian university (among other things).  If it’s some big wig at a national convention of university administrators, I’m going to assume it’s just a special case of “What does philosophy offer the modern university?” and I’m going to give another answer: A framework within which to judge whether what we can do thanks to the STEM folks is something we should do (among other things).  If it’s, say, an epistemologist or philosopher of mind or language or something, then I’ll assume it’s the typical disciplinary chauvinism and give another answer: You tell me what’s so great about your discipline, so I can get a sense of what you think is valuable, and then I’ll give you my answer.  Now I’ll lay (some of my) belligerence aside and take the question somewhat sui generis and talk a little more about the relevance I have in mind.

Despite what the folks at NPR think, religion is an important part of human life.  Indeed, it is arguably the most important part in human life.  Objection: Money and material stuff.  Reply: look what people forego for their religious scruples, from monks who give up all to soccer moms mocked in What’s the Matter with Kansas?  The NPR iPhone app has the following under “Topics” in this order: U.S., World, Politics, Business, Music, Science, Health, Technology, Arts & Life, Books. Religion doesn’t even get a mention.  And rarely is it touched upon under any of these. And when it is, it is usually treated as a curiosity or an atrocity.  For big city cultural elites, religion is passé, if not embarrassing (except, that is, when it is both harmless and makes for good poolside reading at Martha’s Vineyard like Eat, Pray, Love.  But like Freud’s Future of an Illusion hopes and expectations of religion’s demise will be met with disappointment, because it’s too deep in our intellectual (and literal) DNA.  In a thousand years, no one will know (or care) what the 21st Century’s views on health and wellness were or what our “breakthroughs” on the semantics of counterfactuals or self-locating beliefs were.  Those issues may (probably, hopefully) won’t even be topics of conversation any more.  But you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be thinking about why God allows suffering and what we have to learn from the lives of suffering saints.  The holocaust will be a barrier to belief for some and a spur for belief to others.

Western affluence has not proven to be very satisfying, even to those who enjoy its benefits (ever fewer people).  “Man’s search for meaning” (to quote Frankl) will go on, and it will spur questions and thoughts the significance of which are of an enduring value that nothing else in the academic repertoire can match.  In a thousand years there will not be a United States of America (I’m just going to assume there’s going to be an Earth!), nor a European Union, but there will be a Catholic Church and probably other current religions and probably a few more.  Religion isn’t going away, doubt isn’t going to go away, so philosophy of religion isn’t going away.  So if current curators of curricula want their universities to be a part of History beside the dust bin, they’d better get more serious about philosophy of religion.  (Note that it is almost never taught in top “Leiterific” schools nor do those schools have hardly any faculty who publish regularly in it, nor do they ever (ever) hire specifically for it.  Meanwhile, their institutions continue to proliferate “professional” programs which can be big cash cows (sometimes producing valuable professionals like nurses, sometimes producing MBAs).)

Isn’t this true of other areas in the academy, like ethics and political thought?  To a certain extent, yes, and that’s perfectly compatible with my thesis, but I wasn’t asked to describe what they can offer.  And I’ll wager that these disciplines won’t survive well without the religious element.  Philosophy of religion enjoys a continuity with the thought of the last 2500 years from Plato to present in a way rivaled only by ethics, which still comes in a clear second.  I once wrote a letter to Kripke (undelivered) with the opening lines “Want to be remembered in 500 years?  Then you’d better get cracking on some philosophy of religion.”  I go on to point out that every major philosopher in the Western canon was some kind of theist, and even in the 20th century, atheists had to weigh in.  Objection: Oh but Secularity Thesis.  Reply: Don’t bet on it.  And, anyway, I’ve been talking about relevance in the long run, but there is of course relevance in the short run, where it is abundantly obvious that religion is a major motivating force in human life (outside the modern university faculty offices).  So if relevance to current students is an end in view, philosophy of religion offers a lot.  At least it offers a lot more than the folks who determine what classes are offered at top modern universities. A philosophy of religion course (one which didn’t utterly ignore the traditions with which the students are actually acquainted) would help bridge the gap between the insular secularism of most faculty in the modern university and the genuine interest in religion among most students.  That seems like a good thing to me.

Tim Labron on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

tim labronTim Labron is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Concordia University of Edmonton. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

“What can Philosophy of Religion Offer to the Modern University?” This is an odd question. Not because Philosophy of Religion offers a great deal or nothing to the University; rather, it makes the whole affair seem like a business. Perhaps Universities are unfortunately becoming more businesslike and various disciplines are consequently trying to claim their productive status to remain employed.  To follow this line of thought, in my opinion, can lead to further confusions and problems. On the other hand, perhaps some will argue for the general value of Philosophy of Religion. I think that there certainly is a value, but an argument for value is likely to either fall upon deaf ears or to be an exercise in naval gazing.

I will provide a snippet in a specific context as an example showing Philosophy of Religion at ‘work’.

According to many, Philosophy of Religion had its day and now that day is long gone. Those still pursuing this discipline are clearly the remnant who will eventually be displaced by economically viable workers and clear thinking scholars. However, those supposedly ‘clear thinking’ folks are actually creating a venue for Philosophy of Religion. For example, I was recently talking with a Scientist/Christian at Oxford University and he told me that the atheists at Oxford (those who readily condemn Philosophy of Religion and its continuation) frequently become tired of discussions centred on their materialistic world-view and purposefully seek contact with him and Philosophers of Religion. I agreed and pointed out that they are regularly parasitic upon Philosophy of Religion. Perhaps this is too suggestive, but those who advocate for the death of Philosophy of Religion would dearly miss their foil and conversation partners.

From another angle, the sciences are not simply materialistic. Indeed, decades ago matter was discovered to not just be some physical lumps that plod along in a deterministic fashion.  Instead, it is also energy within which particles come in and out of existence. Moreover, the role of humans has become central for many physicists (e.g., Niels Bohr, Anton Zeilinger) in terms of measurement in quantum mechanics. That is, it is arguable that a human’s free will to make a measurement with X instrument at Y time determines a particle’s existence. Another perplexing question is the nature of time. Some physicists argue that it is an emergent property (e.g., Don Page) which then naturally leads to questions regarding infinity and eternity. Lastly, and equally condensed, there is a shift from a simple materialistic reductionism to a foundation based on information (and may I add that in the beginning was the Word). The old clockwork machine is dead. Of course, this does not mean that the scientific atheists are abandoning ship; rather, it means that now science is discussing points of view and paradoxes that bump against Philosophy of Religion. In short, John Wheeler, one of the most well-known physicists, remarked: “You can talk about people like Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius, but the thing that convinced me that such people existed were the conversations with Bohr.”

Despite quantitative business models and qualitative denunciations, one only needs to look at the Academy and will see that Philosophy of Religion has a clear and active participation in many Universities. Indeed, hypothetically speaking, if all philosophers of religion were removed from every University then Philosophy of Religion would spontaneously arise again in those very Universities—even if not as an institutional department.

Robert C. Neville on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

RNevilleRobert C. Neville is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Theology at Boston University. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Of the many things that philosophy of religion offers the modern university, the most important, in my view, is disciplined inquiry into ultimate realities and what is involved in understanding and relating to them. Thus, philosophy of religion is primarily a research project and then secondarily teaching that introduces students into that research. That emphasis might be flipped for philosophy of religion in non-university colleges.

The most controversial point in my view of the matter is the bald assertion that there are ultimate realities that need to be studied. In Western universities, this would not have been controversial before the 20th century, but now it needs to be explicitly affirmed. There are at least five ultimate realities around which religions have developed problematics and that need philosophical discussion and understanding. The first is whatever answers the question of why or how there is something rather than nothing. The world in all long-standing religious traditions as well as most scientific traditions is felt as radically contingent. Philosophy of religion is needed to understand that contingency and understand also how various religious traditions have given such diverse interpretations of it.

The second ultimate comes from the boundary condition for human life that sets it up that people have to choose among future possibilities that have different value. What value is in future alternatives, how to tell what is valuable, how to make choices well, what to do with wrong choices, how choices are both individual and conjoint—these are all aspects of the general problematic of what might be called righteousness and every religious tradition addresses this problematic. Philosophy of religion is needed to understand this and how religions have dealt with it.

The third ultimate is that human beings have to integrate complex lives, aiming at wholeness. Suffering, finding a location, relating to one’s body, family, social circumstances and a host of other things add up to an ultimate condition of questing for wholeness. Religions have many ways of defining this problematic of wholeness. Philosophy of religion is needed to understand how those ways relate to wholeness or the ideal self.

The fourth ultimate is that an ultimate condition for human life is relating to others—other people, social institutions, and nature—as they are in themselves and not only insofar as they enter into the lifecourse of one’s group or one’s self. Axial Age religions share some version of the Golden Rule, but that is not the only way of relating to Otherness. Philosophy of religion is needed to understand this.

The fifth ultimate is the boundary condition of life having a meaning, or not. Sometimes this is understood in terms of the value one’s life achieves, or one’s group. Although this way of putting it reflects 20th century existentialism and its discovery that life is not meaningful in ways determined by external authority, every religion has some way of dealing with this problematic.

Notice that I’ve argued that religions have developed their problematic in relation to realities that are ultimate boundary conditions for life irrespective of what religions do about them. The world is contingent as such, choices between alternative of different value have to be made, life is a puzzle to integrate, others have a nature and value over and above the roles they play for us, the facticity of life either has or has not a meaning. Just as climate is real, and diverse over the globe, so these boundary conditions for human life are real for wherever there is human life. All the ways in which religions develop problematics regarding the ultimate realities are historically constructed. But the ultimate realities to which they respond are real and the diverse constructed religious responses can be understood and compared as ways of responding to them.  Philosophy of religion is needed to understand all this.

My view thus rejects the claim of many philosophers, especially postmodern ones, that there is no reference to religious claims and attitudes and that all religious realities are mere human constructions. That constructionist approach easily leads to claims that each religion is nothing more than a cultural tradition. Moreover it leads to doubting that religion is a universal category at all. But my view interprets religion as the human engagement of those ultimate realities in cognitive, existentially defining, and practical ways. Religion is basic, religions are various historically conditioned ways of being religious.

Isn’t it obvious that the modern university needs some discipline for inquiry into the ultimate realities and how human beings can cope with them? The university would be seriously amiss if it neglected this vitally important topic. This is especially true nowadays when globalization has made it abundantly clear that there are many different religious ways of addressing how to engage ultimate realities, and that these can be seriously competitive. Look at the issues of religiously motivated violence! This is not just a matter of conflicting cultures or competing interests: it is a matter of different ways of dealing with what is ultimately important and demanding of ultimate concern. Moreover, the rise of modern science is creating ways of understanding the world that undermines many of the traditional senses of authority that have organized religions. Although many religions can reassert those authorities in confessional ways, to understand how to evaluate that requires looking at the ways those religions alternatively address what is ultimately real.

Wisdom in the modern university for understanding and addressing ultimate realities can come from a single tradition, philosophically interpreted. It’s better to have as many traditions studied as possible. But philosophy of religion is not just the self-understanding or philosophical hermeneutics of any or all religious traditions. It is the examination of how the ultimate realities are best addressed in our day, and how the various religions are different ways of doing that, for better or worse.

Joseph Trabbic on “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?”

JosephTrabbicJoseph Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. His research and publications are in medieval philosophy, continental philosophy, philosophy of religion, and metaphysics. We invited him to answer the question “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Let me begin with something of a detour. Before I answer this really great question, I should tell you about my general views on education, what you could call my “hermeneutic situation” vis-à-vis education. My views on education – like my views on just about everything else – are broadly those of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, or what I take that tradition to be. So, I accept the distinction between artes serviles and artes liberales, and I think that the latter should be at the heart of any university education. I don’t deny that professional or technical training – the servile arts – have a place in universities. No culture can survive unless the material conditions for human well-being are provided for and no culture can flourish unless they are well provided for. The latter would require a higher level of professional or technical training and a university might be the appropriate place for that.

Because the servile arts provide for the material well-being of a culture, they also, to some extent, make liberal arts education possible. What I mean is this: if you are just struggling to survive, you won’t have time for serious intellectual pursuits. For that you need an ample amount of leisure. Aristotle’s famous statement in the Metaphysics about the development of mathematics in Egypt is relevant here. Aristotle tells us that it was only after the servile arts were developed that people first began to have leisure, and so, he adds, “this is why the mathematical arts were developed in Egypt, for there the priestly caste was allowed to be at leisure.” Aristotle appears to be speaking historically, but, of course, there is also a philosophical reflection going on here about material and formal causes (and about moving and final causes as well in the surrounding text).

Let me pass now to the liberal arts. The canonical list of seven liberal arts that has come down to us from Martianus Capella and others came to be divided up in the Middle Ages between the verbal arts of the trivium – grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic – and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The liberal arts were, thus, understood as “paths”: a trivium is the intersection of three paths and a quadrivium is the intersection of four paths. What is the point on which these paths converge? In the Didascalicon, his treatise on the liberal arts, Hugh of St. Victor contends that they are paths “to the mind’s complete knowledge of philosophical truth” – ad plenam philosophicae veritatis notitiam. There is not enough space here for me to discuss the precise way that the liberal arts’ function as paths to philosophy, so let’s just stipulate that they do (but for a pretty good account of the liberal arts propaedeutic relation to philosophy I would recommend Benedict Ashley and Pierre Conway’s excellent article “The Liberal Arts in St. Thomas Aquinas,” The Thomist 22 (1959), 460-532).

How does Hugh understand philosophy? It is simply the pursuit of wisdom, as the name suggests. And, for Hugh, this ultimately means seeking God as the principle from which everything else flows. Aquinas agrees with Hugh (who he cites) on the telos of the liberal arts; they prepare us for philosophy, but more specifically for metaphysics, the discipline of philosophy that studies the first principles of things and the first principle, i.e., God. Aquinas says that, metaphysics is, in this sense, a theology or divine science (scientia divina). Because God is the first principle of things, knowledge of him qua first principle is, to Aquinas’s mind, wisdom par excellence since wisdom is (on an Aristotelian understanding) knowledge of the first principle or principles. So, you could say that Aquinas takes the liberal arts to have, in the end, a sapiential or theological purpose (both coming out to the same thing). Aquinas’s vision is (if I might play on a title of Catherine Pickstock) of a sapiential or theological “consummation” of the liberal arts.

This isn’t our contemporary understanding of the liberal arts; it’s not, for example, the way that Martha Nussbaum thinks of them. It’s pretty mediaeval. The salient question, however, is whether it’s the right way to think about the liberal arts. Obviously, I believe it is. Defending it would require a general defense of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, which is not something that can even be begun to be done in the present forum.

The reason why Aristotle and Aquinas take the liberal arts (Aristotle implicitly, Aquinas explicitly) to be preparatory for philosophy (as divine science), is that they hold human happiness to be a life organized in view of contemplation of the divine as the highest good/truth. All our undertakings, then, from the servile arts to the liberal arts have contemplation of the divine as their ultimate purpose. This contemplation, they suppose, is most perfectly realized – as far as our natural powers are concerned – in metaphysics. This doesn’t mean that only metaphysicians can be happy. Contemplation of the divine admits of various levels from highest to lowest. And, for Aquinas, there is much more to the story than I have the space to tell here since Christian revelation adds a whole new dimension to our consideration of contemplation and happiness. But, let’s not forget that, on the Thomistic view – well summarized by Cajetan – grace doesn’t replace or destroy nature but presupposes and perfects it (gratia praesupponit et perficit naturam). Everything that I have said so far would continue to hold, then; it would simply have to be recontextualized when we take revelation into account.

I can now come back to the question I have been asked to respond to: “What does philosophy of religion offer to the modern university?” I explained my understanding of philosophy of religion in an earlier post here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org. What I’m going to say now will assume some of what I said there. Philosophy of religion, as I do it, ranges over what Aristotle and Aquinas take to be distinct disciplines within philosophy, i.e., philosophy of nature, moral philosophy, and metaphysics. The unity of my version of philosophy of religion is constituted by its formal object, i.e., God. Everything is thought in its relation to the divine.

The modern university, as we know it in Western culture, seems more often than not to be driven by practical rather than contemplative purposes. Its dominant orientations are technological, medical, political, social, and professional. In this respect, I would say that in the modern university we are still subjects of the Cartesian empire. Put differently: the modern university is truly modern. Remember that an essential part of Descartes’s project is the overthrow of Aristotelianism (and with it, Thomism); this is among the founding gestures of modernity as I (and many others) interpret it. What this overthrow means for education Descartes spells out, albeit briefly, in the Discourse on Method. There he dreams of “speculative philosophy” (philosophie spéculative) being replaced by a “practical one” (une practique) in the “schools” (écoles). Descartes seems to be thinking, above all, of progress in technology and medicine, but that is an inconsequential detail; the practical turn – and, by it, the overthrow of the hegemony of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition – is taken.

Bruno Latour tells us that “we have never been modern.” Setting my sights on a different target, I would say that we have never been postmodern, not, that is, so long as we continue to carry out the Cartesian project as I have just described it. To be sure, I am radically simplifying a complex history, but I can’t indulge in a more fine-grained analysis here.

What philosophy of religion can offer the modern university is help in thinking rightly about God, human beings, and human happiness (as located in God). If this is done along Aristotelian-Thomistic lines – as I would argue it should be – then this kind of philosophy of religion will at the same time necessarily become a point of subversion and resistance in the modern university insofar as the latter is still in thrall to the Cartesian project.